Public policies to promote heathy and sustainable diets

The Brazilian Sustainable School Program (SSP), an inspiration for public policy to promote sustainability in schools

In a context where more than a quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) are caused by food system (Crippa, 2021) and malnutrition being one of the main sources of global mortality (Swinburn, 2019; Global Nutrition Report, 2020), it seems necessary to improve food production and offer. Indeed, sustainable food production needs to promote agricultural practices with lower GHGE, but also by supporting local biodiversity, resource efficiency, and the welfare of the population, in terms of quality, affordability, and accessibility to the product, which is essential to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (FAO, 2017; Pérez-Escamilla, 2017). Acting at schools has the power to reach a broad population and may implement long-term behaviour change (Sidaner, 2013). Therefore, the Brazilian National School Feeding Program (PNAE) was created, representing Brazil’s longest-standing public policy (Portal Brasileiro de Dados Abertos, 2014). However, with the nutritional transition and the current global burden of malnutrition, obesity, and climate change, the role of the program should be re-examined to offer meals that will address those multiple challenges.

Aimed at improving the quality of school meals, the Sustainable School Program (SSP) implemented low-carbon meals, twice a week, in 155 schools of 4 municipalities in Bahia (Brazil), reaching more than 32,000 students. This study (Kluczkovski, 2022) evaluated the environmental impact and nutritional viability of this program.

Conventional and sustainable food menus are almost equivalent in terms of nutrients, with only significant differences in calcium, magnesium, iron and cholesterol content

The nutritional content of the conventional and sustainable food menus was almost equivalent. In nursery and pre-school children (0-5 years), the only statistically significant differences were found for iron content with the sustainable food menu presenting higher levels. The sustainable menu in elementary, secondary, young adult, and adult education (from 6 years old) was also significantly higher in magnesium. In both groups, calcium content was significantly higher in the conventional food menu as well as cholesterol content.

As regards the processing level of the menus, the sustainable menu for nursery and pre-school children presented a lower amount of calories from unprocessed foods and higher caloric share of processed and ultra-processed foods, when compared to the conventional one. This result is expected as meat, dairy, and eggs from the conventional menu (more frequently unprocessed) were replaced by foods such as soya and peanuts, which have a high protein concentration, with fewer calories. This automatically reduces the percentage value of calories from unprocessed foods and increases the caloric participation of the other groups, unnecessarily representing a higher frequency of food groups. On the other hand, in elementary, secondary, young adult, and adults, the situation is reversed with the sustainable menu presenting higher caloric part of unprocessed foods and lower part of processed and ultra processed.

However, it is important to note that both menus had high proportions of ultra-processed foods (>58%).

Sustainable food menus contributed to a reduction of up to 17% in GHGE

For both age groups, the GHGE of the sustainable school food menus (740 g CO2e/day) were lower, when compared with the conventional ones (1950 g CO2e/day).

The total amount of GHGE was seen to be decreased with the increase of sustainable food menus. Indeed, adopting a 4-days a week sustainable menu reduces the GHGE from 400 kg CO2e/year to 240 kg CO2e/year for nursery and preschool menus, and from 242 kg CO2e/year to 132 kg CO2e/year for primary and secondary school menus.

As regards the percentage decrease in the total GHGE, moving from a 100% conventional menu (2018) to two days a week (2019) reduced GHGE by 15% for nursery and preschool and 17% for the other group. By increasing the ratio of the use of sustainable to conventional menus further, a reduction of 40% and 45% was to be expected in 2021, according to the school age group, due to the adoption of sustainable menus four days a week.

An initiative that could inspire public policies in other regions and beyond

The present study concluded that the sustainable menu appeared to be more effective from a nutritional aspect but also in lowering GHGE. This GHGE reduction highlights the impact of changing dietary intake on climate change.

The findings of this study provide an environmental evidence base for implementing sustainable strategies and targeting interventions that have the greatest impact. It also provides evidence to caterers and policymakers on how to adjust and change menus, along with effective co-developed education programs, thereby reducing the climate impact of food.

This study is the first foray into calculating school menu climate impacts and, therefore, provides a pilot for this work in other settings. It could also be usefully carried out in other regions of Brazil, as well as in other countries.

Based on: Kluczkovski A, et al. An Environmental and Nutritional Evaluation of School Food Menus in Bahia, Brazil That Contribute to Local Public Policy to Promote Sustainability. Nutrients. 2022 Apr 6;14(7):1519.

Key messages
  • Both conventional and sustainable food menus are equivalent, in terms of nutrients, except for calcium, iron, magnesium and cholesterol.
  • Sustainable menus reduced up to 17% GHGE depending on the school age group analysed.
  • The Sustainable School Program demonstrates that a substantial reduction in climate impact is feasible, successful, and can be an inspiration to other regions and countries.
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